The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
The Holy Innocents
This shouldn't be a part of the Christmas season, but it is. It always is. One of the twelve days of Christmas is a memorial day – a day to remember the innocent children who died – those who were killed by King Herod, and those who have died since. It shouldn't be, but it always is.
Christmas reminds us how magical childhood can be. When we think of Christmas, we think of little ones tucked in their beds, or opening gifts, or leaving milk and cookies out for Santa. We think of their sweet voices singing Christmas carols. Often we, ourselves, feel a childlike joy as we revisit those special places and memories of Christmases past. And for this one Church season, we even think about Jesus as a child – lying in a manger, being held by his parents, receiving gifts from his mysterious visitors.
But hidden in the joy of the season, hidden, by omission, in our Gospel reading today, is the deep sadness of the Christmas season: innocence does not last. This beautiful season carries also the weight of grief. It shouldn't be there, but it always is.
The story of Jesus' birth is a great story. You know the story well: miraculous conception, angel choirs announce the birth, a star in the sky summons visitors from afar. The savior is born to a young virgin and is laid in a humble manger. And all the while the reader knows what very few in that ancient world could have guessed: the baby born is God in human flesh. It is good news of great joy for all the people. And so we celebrate this event every year on December 25 with church and gifts and family and a bank holiday.
But of course there is more to the story. In the Gospel of Matthew, the simple beauty of the manger scene gives way to the harsh reality of the bigger picture. God is born not into a fairy tale land but into our complicated, dangerous world. The wonder gives way to hostile response. And we know before the Christ-child is even speaking in sentences, his life will not be an easy one. By the time Jesus is two years old he is already wanted for treason. The sentence was death.
Of course, they did not get him – not this time. Joseph, Jesus' human father, is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt – beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, beyond the reach of the violent king. It must have been a confusing dream – why would anyone want to destroy a little child? - but probably no less confusing than his previous dream – the one about his pregnant virgin fiancee bearing the Messiah. And so they fled – exiles to a foreign land, escaping the threat. And Jesus lived.
But others were not so lucky. All those children – in and around Bethlehem, those children with little hands and faces, learning to be human, those little children growing up around the infant Jesus – did not escape, did not live. Because fear and power and violence looked into the face of God and saw only a threat to be destroyed. And so this beautiful season carries also the weight of grief.
And the Church has never forgotten that. The Church commemorates those innocent children as martyrs. December 28, the fourth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents – those children who died, victims of the evil strivings of this world. St. Augustine said of them, “These then, whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom are justly hailed as the infant martyr flowers, the first buds of the church killed by the frost of persecution. They died not only for Christ but in his stead.”
And this most heartbreaking of feasts comes in our Christmas season – a season most typically filled with parties and celebrations and gifts and cookies. To a world in full party mode, it must seem a strange way to celebrate Christmas. But in the Church we are not so much interested in sentimentality; we are interested in truth. We celebrate the Christmas season not because it is happy but because it is world-changing. And the Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us why the world needs changing.
The reality is: the change God offers is not always welcome. God's salvation was for King Herod too; Jesus came for him too. God has hopes and dreams for all people – from the lowest to the most powerful. But God came as one of the lowest and that meant for kings and rulers like Herod the long trip to the feet of Jesus was much too costly.
And so instead of accepting Jesus, Herod tried to destroy Jesus. And in the process destroyed little children, destroyed families, destroyed lives. He did it because some foreign visitors told him that they were visiting a child born to be king. Because, above all, Herod loved his power and status and riches. He killed innocent children to protect the things he loved most of all. Herod slaughtered the future; he tried to destroy hope.
This is the world into which God came. That is what we remember in the Christmas season and this terrible story helps us to remember. Our world is not safe. It is violent and it is dangerous. The evil powers of the world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God are alive and are active. The future of God's dreams is not always welcome.
Unfortunately, we are reminded of this too often. The story of the Holy Innocents just won't stay in the past. Children continue to be a target, holy innocents are still destroyed – sometimes intentionally and sometimes as collateral damage. For many of us, this nightmare became too real in Newtown, Connecticut just over a year ago – one more instance in our history of violence. The slaughter of the innocents seems to cling to us, to stretch across the history of human civilization – little children caught up in big people's wars, innocent victims of our human struggle for power. This is the world into which God came.
Jesus was born and lived and died in our chaos and mess. His young life was threatened. He lived as an exile – a child away from home, a refugee living among strangers. Jesus was opposed by those in power his entire life. All the while he never asked for their positions, only their hearts. And at last, Jesus was crucified for treason; the sign posted on his cross read: King of the Jews. It was the title he wore as a threatened infant; it was the title he took to the cross.
Who knew the Christmas miracle could be so threatening? Who knew salvation would be so unwelcome? Who knew a season of birth could bear this much grief?
Unwelcoming and threatening, violent and heart-broken, this is the world into which God came. It shouldn't be, but it is – it always is. The story of the Holy Innocents continues to haunt us; but it is the story of Christmas that will never let us go. This story is God's story and it is a salvation story. Salvation was born in a hostile environment. But the hostile could not destroy it – not then and not now.